Specifically, what happened, more than once, was that I would be friendly, I would smile, I would happily chat with them. I liked these boys fine, as people, as friends. I wasn't interested in them romantically, and I didn't say or do anything that I meant as flirting. And I certainly wasn't the prettiest girl around, or the most attractively / seductively dressed. I think I lived in grubby jeans and baggy t-shirts back then. But nonetheless more than a few of those boys interpreted my smiles and cheerful chatter as flirtatious.
Sometimes their responses were awkward, inappropriate. A few tried to kiss me, entirely out of the blue, as far as I could tell. When I, flustered, avoided the kiss, they stopped, and tried to apologize. It was messy and terribly awkward, but it also wasn't the end of the world. None of those boys were persistent in their attempts to gain my affections -- we clarified the misunderstanding, and moved on. We stayed friends.
One of them didn't try to kiss me, but did ask me, repeatedly, why I didn't want to date him. What was wrong with him? Why didn't any girls want to date him? We spent a few hours on that painful conversation freshman year, and that was the most awkward of all, mostly because he just couldn't let it go. The repetition made it uncomfortable, and a bit pressuring. But you know, we were very young, and trying to figure this stuff out, and we may have been a little drunk that night too. In the morning, we were still friends, and he eventually found some girls happy to date him.
After freshman year, I mostly didn't run into that kind of thing again. In part, because the boys were older, and more used to girls and reading their cues. In part because I was a little more careful not to signal interest when interest wasn't there. I did completely mangle it all again when I realized I also liked girls -- I had no idea how to signal or not signal my interest in them. But eventually I sorted that out too.
I don't meant to imply that I think I was doing anything wrong as a freshman in college, when I wasn't signaling as clearly I as I do now. I don't think any of those boys would have been justified in attacking me, just because my signals were unclear. Yes means yes, and no means no. But I do think it helps us have a more nuanced conversation on this complex topic if we can use some specifics about what various signals mean, and how they get read.
I went years without running into any issues along these lines -- I was very lucky not to encounter any workplace harassment or other issues, beyond the unfortunately common harassing guys on the street. When I was walking home one night, one guy followed me in his car for a few blocks. That was fun. But still, mostly I encountered very little difficulty in my daily life. And then I started going to SF conventions. Oy.
For the most part they were fine. But occasionally, I would run into the same sort of situation as in college. My behavior hadn't changed, but pretty clearly, some of the people at SF cons were even less deft at reading social cues than those freshman boys. Mostly men, but a few women too.
And in some ways this was even harder to deal with, because these were my people. I remembered being an excluded outsider as a kid, the geeky one. And I am a woman, socialized to niceness no matter what. When trapped in an endless awkward conversation, with the other person sitting too close, their knees edging closer to mine, my instinct is still to be polite. I don't want to hurt their feelings.
Generally, I don't actually feel unsafe in these situations -- I'm not alone in an elevator with them, or in a hotel room. We're in a public space, a hallway or a panel room or the lobby. There are people around, or there will be soon. But I do feel extremely uncomfortable, and I'm rather desperately hoping that I will soon be able to get away. Without hurting their feelings.
This dynamic has been exacerbated as I become better known in the field, as I publish more, edit more, give speeches. I've been listed as an 'attending luminary' in program books. I've heard, second-hand, that there are people desperate to meet me, who are afraid to come up to me. Readers want to meet an author they like, want to have a personal connection with them.
I understand that wish; I feel it too. I have been reduced to the giddiest of awkward fangirls in the presence of Neil Gaiman, Pamela Dean, Dorothy Allison. As a writer and editor, I want to be friendly and open and welcoming. I would love to get to know all of my readers, at least a little. If you come up to me at a convention, I will be happy to meet you, to chat with you.
Sometimes, even with the best wishes in the world, it can be hard to tell where the boundaries are. When you mix gender dynamics, physical size and social power, author-fan issues, romantic longing, professional concerns, geekiness and the welcoming and sometimes touchy-feely culture of SF/F-fandom together, sometimes you get an explosive mess. In the public response to the ReaderCon Rene Walling decision, I have seen some people expressing anxiety that they are equally as bad as Rene. That they might, inadvertently, do something awful at a convention, and end up banned for life. That maybe they shouldn't go to cons at all.
That makes me so sad, that fear. I don't think it's necessary. If social cues aren't your best thing, that doesn't mean you can't, safely and appropriately, participate in social activities, mixed-gender or otherwise. It's true that most of the guidelines that let us interact appropriately in these situations, to read clearly whether someone is romantically interested in us or wants to be our bestest friend for life or is just being friendly and polite are unspoken. But those rules can still be learned. Here are a few guidelines for interacting with me, personally; I think they will generally do well for you:
- If I'm at a convention, in a public space, you are very welcome to come up and say hello. And if you like my work, PLEASE feel free to say so.
- If I'm already talking to other people, wait for a break in the conversation before you speak. (Generally, when a new person comes up to a group of conversing folks, there will be some kind of nonverbal or verbal acknowledgement of your presence. A smile, a nod, a 'hi.' If it seems like people are avoiding your eyes, avoiding contact, then maybe there's some reason why now is not a good time to approach. Perhaps they've already decided that they want to keep to a small group of six for dinner, and are afraid that you'll ask to join them. It's almost certainly not personal -- if that happens, smile and wander off. With any luck, you'll get another chance to talk later.)
- If we're talking, but I'm responding in monosyllables and/or avoiding eye contact, that probably means I'd like to end the conversation. Maybe I'm late for a meeting, but don't want to be rude and cut you off. Maybe I need to use the restroom. Maybe I'm uncomfortable for some other reason. An appropriate response might be something like, "You probably need to get going." That gives me an opportunity to gratefully agree. Or, if by some chance I actually DO want to keep talking to you but have gotten distracted, it gives me the chance to say, "Oh no, I'd love to keep talking." And we're good either way.
- If we're not already good friends, please stay at least an arm's-length away, if possible. That makes me feel safe. Sometimes conventions are so crowded that that's not possible; do what you can.
- And if you think I'm flirting with you, and would like to flirt back -- please, just ask. I can't speak for anyone else here, but I'm pretty blunt about this sort of thing, ESPECIALLY in SF/F circles. I'm a geek, and I appreciate clarity. You could say something like, "Are we flirting here?" I know this part is awkward -- for me too. But it's even more awkward, I promise you, to think someone's interested, and you lean in for a kiss, and they pull away, startled. I've been on that side of the misreading too, and it's really no fun at all.